The Forager’s Kitchen

Hedgerows are always a source of fascination, they are so full of flora and fauna. At the moment, they are dotted with glossy blackberries, and I can never resist picking them as I pass. My mother, the queen of preserves in our family, is already making jam and there has been talk of a blackberry and apple crumble coming our way too…!

My level of hedgerow foraging is fairly basic, but there is lots of ‘free’ food out there if you only know what to look for. My friend Julia Horton-Powdrill is a great forager and it was through her excellent Facebook page that I came across ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ a truly fascinating cookery book that contains over 100 easy recipes from savoury to sweet, written by a Scots lady called Fiona Bird.

Don’t be put off by the title – this book is absolutely fascinating just to sit and read even if you have no intention of going and collecting any of the ingredients yourself. Not only does Fiona provide lovely (and easy) recipes, she gives lots of additional information about wildflowers, herbs, fruits and berries and more. Should you feel inspired, she also tells you how to forage, essential ground rules (how to avoid misidentification!) and a range of lovely little ‘wild notes’ with really useful hints and tips.

The book is divided up into sections – Flowers & Blossom, Woodland & Hedgerow, Fruits & Berries, Herbs and Sea & Shore. There’s a huge range of recipes – from Christmas Tree Cookies (using Douglas fir needs) through Carrot & Clover Cake to the most gorgeous looking Violet Macarons with Primrose Cream. Fiona writes very well and, whether you live in a city, the countryside or by the coast, if you follow her advice, you will find more ingredients growing in the wild than you could imagine!

Our ancestors knew what to pick and I do think it’s a shame that most people today are so ‘disconnected’ from the countryside and, indeed, wary of it. There is so much beauty in nature and such bounty out there if we only know what to do with it.

Fiona Bird is a mother of six children. She is a self-taught cook and past Masterchef finalist who has always had a passion for cooking and her approach to food is based on her knowledge of tight budgets and limited time. You can follow Fiona on her Facebook page. 

 

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Rare breeds are a rare treat!

A lot of you will already know that I am a bit of an old softie when it comes to baby animals and fluffy things in general… so you can image how incredibly soppy I get when surrounded by a farm full of gorgeous creatures that I am allowed to stroke and pet!

Totnes Rare Breeds Farm is a really rather special place. It was founded by Jacquie and Barrie Tolley in 2001, who were concerned about the decline of traditional British breeds. A scythe, a digger, and a lot of hard work later, they’d built a rare breeds farm, which opened in June 2002. Since then, the farm has been expanded and is still being improved.

What began as a collection of farmyard rare breeds has gradually grown. The smallest pygmy goats, and very inquisitive pigs! I am a big fan of pigs and can assure you, theirs are the sweetest!

You can also get close to the endangered wildlife of the English countryside, making this much more than just a petting farm. You can touch a hedgehog’s prickly spines or admire the gripping pads on a red squirrel’s foot.

Wizard the eagle owl – who is very large and actually a little bit scary – really seems to enjoy affection and he, and his eight feathered friends, can be seen up close and stroked. It’s amazing to be so close to these beautiful creatures and to be able to look right into their eyes.

What sets Totnes Rare Breeds apart is the opportunity it gives to really get close to the animals. The majority of pens can be entered, and almost all their inhabitants stroked, patted and cuddled. They will even give you a free pot of special food to take round to ensure you are the centre of attention!

The Farm is a non-profit-making organisation and relies on the work of volunteers and the support of its customers. You can sponsor the animals with all funds going towards vets’ bills.  And the final icing on the cake…? You can visit the Rare Breeds Farm in conjunction with the South Devon Steam Railway and there are joint ticket deals available. Heaven!

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Devon violets: a symbol of modesty or a little flirt?

I was peering in a junk shop window the other day – it was closed so no time for a rummage sadly – when I spotted a little pottery perfume bottle with ‘Sweet Devon Violets’ on it… and I remembered an elderly aunt (who was probably not that elderly at all) who always had handkerchiefs scented with sweet Devon violets.

Devon is a wonderful place for wildflowers and violets seem to grow particularly well in the climate here and are usually plentiful in the springtime. Beautiful and delicate, the pungent perfume of the variety Viola Odorata is used as a source for scents in the perfume industry.

Violet is known as a ‘flirty’ scent as its fragrance comes and goes. Ionone (a chemical substance) is present in the flowers, which turns off the ability for humans to smell the fragrant compound for moments at a time – isn’t that clever?

The Viola Odorata was one of the first flowering plants to be grown commercially and there are records showing they were for sale in Athens 400BC and being grown in specialist nurseries in Attica. Throughout the centuries violets have been a favourite flower, either for their perfume that scented the rooms and floors or their medicinal qualities that are still being researched today.

Dawlish in Devon was the most important centre for the cultivation of violets in 1916 and a special train ran from Cornwall to London carrying all the flowers on their way to Covent Garden Market on a daily basis. By 1936 there was a flourishing trade from this area and flowers were sent regularly to the Queen and ladies at the Court. During the war years, the land was requisitioned for growing much needed food, and violets went out of fashion, sadly never to return.

As a result, nowadays we tend to associate the perfume with elderly ladies and as being rather old-fashioned. As a flower, the violet represents modesty–hence the phrase ‘a shrinking violet’–so perhaps that has something to do with it being regarded as rather shy and retiring and old hat! Yet the sweet violet is really the true flower of Valentine’s Day as legend has it that, while in prison, St Valentine wrote a letter to his lover with ink made from violets.

Sweet Devon Violet products are still popular today with Devon violet soaps, bath bombs, perfume, essential oils, candles and much more, all being widely available on line. Look into any Devon gift shop and you are sure to find some products too! So perhaps the popularity of this lovely fragrance won’t fade away like our aged aunts and does still have a place in modern life, albeit a slightly shy and retiring one!

 

 

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A summer soup…

My foraging friend Julia Horton-Powdrill is always introducing new seasonal recipes for either things she’s grown in her veg garden or foraged from some passing hedgerow, beach or field margin.

She currently has an excellent pea crop and, while they are delicious cooked and cooled and added to a green salad, she has also used them in a lovely soup that can be enjoyed hot or cold. It combines the sweetness of the peas with the zing of wild mint! As you will know, mint is a terribly over-enthusiastic plant, so either grow in a pot to try and contain it, or find some growing wild, as Julia has done here.

Wild mint & pea soup

Ingredients: 

  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil + extra for serving
  • 25g butter
  • 1 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced or/and wild garlic leaves
  • 750g fresh peas, shelled (frozen peas are great!!)
  • 75g wild mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preparation:

Gently heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan, add the chopped onion and cook on a gentle heat for 10 minutes or until the onion is soft but not brown. Add the garlic (if using) and cook for a further 3 minutes.

Add 3/4 of the peas, the chopped mint leaves, the wild garlic leaves (if using) and 3/4 stock. Cover the saucepan with a tight fitting lid and cook on a medium boil for 10 minutes.

Blend the soup in a food processor; you will have a thick purée. Return the purée to the pan, season with salt and pepper and add the remaining peas and stock. Cook for a further 5 minutes.

Serve with crusty, fresh bread.

This soup is absolutely delicious hot or cold.

You can find out more about Julia’s foraging courses here.

 

 

 

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Summer Solstice

Today, 21st June, is the Summer Solstice – a date that holds great significance for many people. For me, I always reflect on it being the real start of summer and enjoy it being the longest day… and try to ignore the fact that it’s now downhill all the way to Christmas! 

Solstice, or Litha means a stopping or standing still of the sun – hence the longest day – and it is the time when the sun is at its maximum height. 

This date has had spiritual significance for thousands of years as humans have been amazed by the power of the sun. The Celts celebrated with bonfires that they believed would add to the sun’s energy. Christians placed the feast of St John the Baptist towards the end of June and it is also the festival of Li, the Chinese Goddess of light.

Like other religious groups, Pagans are in awe of the incredible strength of the sun and the divine powers that create life. For Pagans this spoke in the Wheel of the Year is a significant point. The Goddess took over the earth from the horned God at the beginning of Spring and she is now at the height of her power and fertility.

In England thousands of Pagans (and non-Pagans!) flock to ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge, to see the sun rising on the first morning of summer. At Stonehenge the Heel Stone and Slaughter Stone, set outside the main circle, align with the rising sun – which must be a magnificent site to behold!

As well as all the annual drama and news coverage of the celebrations at Stonehenge, many more Pagans will hold small ceremonies in open spaces, everywhere from gardens to woodlands.

Let’s hope the lovely weather holds and we can all enjoy the longest day!

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